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The eight singers of Asheville's a cappella ensemble Pastyme — sopranos Wendy Myers and Pamela Miller, altos Julie Williams and Faye Burner, tenors Jeff Konz and Lee Thomas, baritone Roberto Flores, and bass Ken Wilson — displayed once again why they remain one of the Asheville area's vocal treasures. Singing mainly numbers from their newly released CD "Descends the Snow," the ensemble concentrated on music of a contemplative nature which was beautifully suited to the lively acoustics of St. Lawrence's Basilica, ending with a series of classic old favorites. Their texts, both sacred and secular, with some dating back as far as the 4th century, were in German, Latin, French, Icelandic, and English and were reproduced in the program. The music was evenly balanced between arrangements of older works by contemporary composers and the original versions of works, both early and modern.
Their success with contemporary sounds in close harmonies and their impeccable ensemble despite their two-row standing arrangement are surely the outgrowth of many years of rehearsing and performing together. As noted on their website, the members sing with area church choirs and participate in opera and musical theatre. They have traveled to perform at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC, the Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, and back in Asheville at the Echo Early Music Festival in 2009. I have written elsewhere that they have perfected the art of "not over-singing and make a beautiful case for the appeal of music quietly and artfully rendered."
The program opened with "Gabriel's Message" (arr. Rathbone), the one piece which seemed to suffer at the forte level from the church's live acoustics. All other works fared much better. Rathbone was also the arranger of "Quem Pastores Laudavere," a 14th-century piece retooled in beautiful new harmonies. There were two lovely arrangements by Elizabeth Poston, a traditional Scots cradle song "Balulalow" and the 15th c. "Qui Creavit Coelum" from the Nunnery of St. Mary, Chester. To counter the latter piece for women only, the men sang Andrew Smith's arrangement of "Veni Redemptor Gentium." Based on an ancient plainchant with Latin text, the opening and closing monophonic sections framed a central, harmonized section in English.
A second "Irish lullaby" entitled "A Stable Lamp is Lighted" was composed by Anne Rhymer, a former member of Pastyme. Its text by Richard Wilbur which may be found in the Episcopal Hymnal, is singularly dark," as it references Christ's birth, triumphal entry into "David's city," and death. Another standout was the Icelandic "Immanúel oss í nátt," by Porkell Sigurbjörnsson, which begins and ends with an ostinato on the single word "Immanúel." Both light-hearted and serious, the "Carol of the Field Mice" by Brian Holmes pleads with the villagers to share their warm firesides with those who "stand in the cold and sleet, blowing fingers and stamping feet."
There were two early works, "Joseph Lieber" by 15-16th-century German composer Praetorius and "Allon, Gay Bergeres" by 16th-century French composer Guillaume Costeley. The latter piece suffered somewhat from heaviness and a slow tempo not warranted by its style. "Herself a Rose," Craig Courtney's song of praise to the Virgin, featured simple, homo-rhythmic part-writing with interesting harmonies. "The Town Lay Hushed," arranged by John Baird to a text by Christopher Wood, was set to the third psalm tune of Thomas Tallis, the same tune immortalized in Vaughn Williams's ?Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis." "Here is the Little Door" by Herbert Howells, set to a text by Frances Chesterton, was the single work which referenced the Magi who brought gifts to the Christ Child.
The last part of the program was devoted to the loveliness of winter and the joys of the seasons: "The Winter's Night" by Nicholas Myers, and "Snowflakes" by Lane Johnson, to a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow text. Three sentimental favorites beautifully arranged by Richard Trevarthen included "The Christmas Song," "I'll be Home for Christmas/Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "White Christmas." Finally, no winter program can be complete without a sleighing song; the merriment in this one, "The Sleigh" by Richard Kountz and arranged by Ken Malucelli, was amplified by laughing syllables and gestures and received the warmest applause of the evening.